- Edward A. Ornelas/AAF/Getty Images
- The Alliance of American Football presents the most viable secondary football league that America has seen in years.
- The Alliance has differentiated itself from leagues that came before it in several ways, most notably in its relationship with the NFL.
- Alliance co-founder Charlie Ebersol spoke with INSIDER about the mistakes other pro football leagues made, and how his plans to avoid them and turn into a sustainable business.
The Alliance of American Football got off to a pretty solid start.
If football fans were looking for a fix from their favorite sport after the Super Bowl, the AAF treated them to four games during its inaugural weekend. There was some solid football and a few highlight-reel plays that you’d never see in today’s NFL.
Many secondary football leagues have come and gone through the years of the NFL’s dominance, but the Alliance, led by co-founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian, know their history and are keen to avoid the mistakes of those that came before them.
Ebersol was inspired to create the league after directing the documentary “This Was the XFL” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, which told the story of the last league to take on the NFL through the relationship between his father Dick Ebersol, a monumental executive at NBC Sports, and WWE chairman Vince McMahon.
Days before the Alliance officially kicked off, Ebersol spoke with INSIDER about the lessons he learned from other pro football leagues, identifying three big mistakes they made, and how his planned to avoid them.
Here are the mistakes the other leagues made:
1. Seeing the NFL as the competition, rather than a partner
- Joe Robbins/AAF/Getty Images
The relationship between the AAF and the NFL is probably the most dramatic difference between this upstart and those that came before it.
Unlike other secondary football leagues, which positioned themselves as a rival for the NFL, the Alliance sees itself as partners with the league, even broadcasting its games on NFL Network.
“One of the things I took away from my father was that – 17 years ago one of the biggest mistakes they made in launching the XFL was that it was about ‘The NFL was the No Fun League!’ and they’re going to compete with the NFL,” Ebersol told INSIDER.
“It tells players they should not play in your league, because their ultimate goal – to get back to the NFL and play in the Super Bowl – will be undermined by the fact that you’re directly competing with the partner that you want to be in business with.”
The AAF is made up of many players who have spent time in the NFL, both on active rosters and practice squads, and pitched itself as a possible road back to the league, rather than an opposing force.
“We really felt it was important to be in a symbiotic relationship with them and complementary to the NFL,” Ebersol said. “We created something called the ‘NFL-out’ in our contracts which allows players to leave our league and go play in the NFL.”
The relationship between the Alliance and the NFL goes beyond player contracts. While not an explicit testing ground, it’s clear that the Alliance is already testing out potential rule changes that the NFL might adopt, such as the elimination of kickoffs.
By creating a positive relationship with the NFL, the Alliance made itself a more attractive destination for both fans and players.
2. Battling for major markets
While Ebersol was building the league, he decided to not only to avoid taking on the NFL but also to avoid battling for attention in over-crowded markets.
“Another mistake that gets made in these alternative leagues is that they think they’ve got to go the major media markets and directly compete with all of the other assets,” Ebersol told INSIDER. “You go to New York, and you’re competing with the Yankees and the Knicks and the Rangers and the Islanders and the Mets. It gets to a point where you are unnecessarily handicapping yourself.”
The Alliance is made up of eight teams for its inaugural season, with host cities selected for a wide range of reasons – weather, potential interest, recruiting, and more.
“One of the things that we really paid attention to was the weather,” Ebersol said. “You see that all of our teams in year one are in the south. Part of the reason for that is they’re the number one recruiting states in the country – Florida, Texas, California, Alabama, Tennessee – there’s a reason we’re going to those states. On top of that, there’s no barrier of entry to go to the stadium. We can offer a $10 ticket, and people don’t have to be wearing a parka the whole time.”
3. Over-selling the product
Ebersol believes the football should speak for itself.
“I think from our perspective, one of the mistakes that has been made in the past is that there was so much money put behind marketing, there was so much money put behind awareness that ultimately what happened was people’s expectations were completely out of whack,” Ebersol said. “We have a business plan centered around the idea that we need to take our time, and we need to grow into our audience.”
Ebersol argued that while other leagues have tried to change or amplify certain aspects of football, the sport is a perfect case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“When football goes off the air, about 70 million to 80 million people stop watching sports on the weekend,” Ebersol said. “When they do that, it’s not as if they’re saying ‘I want some new, crazy, weird version of football.’ They want to see football. I think that’s always been a weird thing. I’ve never understood why people thought ‘Oh I’ve got to completely reinvent this game which for the last 60 years has been the most dominant thing in all of television.'”
Through one week, Ebersol’s logic proved sound – the inaugural game of the Alliance that was broadcast on CBS beat the night’s marquee NBA matchup between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder on ABC.
There’s no telling whether or not the Alliance will succeed in the long run, but Ebersol and his partners have learned from the leagues that came before them, and seem prepared to avoid their mistakes.
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